The Nine Muses
Updated: Apr 15
By Valerie Miller, BA Literature and History, Grad Dip Education, MLitt Creative Writing
The Muses Urania and Calliope (Simon Vouet 1590-1649)
O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. William Shakespeare
I became infatuated with the nine Greek muses when I saw Xanadu as a young teenager. This 1980 film starred Australia’s own Olivia Newton John. There she was, beautiful and wholesome, like apple pie.
I remember this magical feeling as the camera narrowed its framing shot down a deserted alley towards a graffitied mural of nine muses. As each muse came to life to ELO’s “I’m Alive”, I was hooked. Mesmerised.
My infatuation with muses was sealed as my imagination ignited. I sat in awe as these muses ran through streets, up stairwells or down a road before disappearing in a flash of neon light. Possibly to help an artist find their inspiration. To be their muse.
In Xanadu, Newton-John’s character Kira, is Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Her name means “one who delights in dance.” She's the perfect muse. Xanadu is about a discouraged artist and a retired big band leader who opens a roller-skating disco club. Kira was the right muse. Especially in the end scene showing the club opening night. For me it was, and yes, still is, a musical delight. A montage of dance and song.
Although the Xanadu soundtrack was a hit, as a film, it flopped. I still love it. I wonder what that says of me. Insert eye rolling here.
As an author the idea of the muses has inspired me. Their mythology continues to stir and whip up my imagination. They’ve been with me all my life. In all my creative pursuits. In a past life I also dabbled in art, acting and theatre directing. The muses were with me then too.
Xanadu (Universal Studios 1980)
The nine muses were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomeni, Ourania, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore and Thalia. More on each of the muses below.
So how did they become part of Ancient Greek mythology?
Ancient Greek writers appealed to the muses as they wrote their tragedies, comedies, and epic poems. Classic work that has survived today. Without these stories, a lot of our own contemporary stories may never have existed. Would we have the three-act story structure? In the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer reaches out to the muses. Today, the muses continue to fuel artistic creation and are held up as symbols of inspiration. Look at the plethora of movies, books, and art we enjoy today. Fictional works already created and are yet to be crafted.
The Greek word "moises" refers to desire and wish. The word "museum" comes from the Greek "muses".
Mythology of Muses
The birth of the muses is a story rich in Greek Mythology. The God Zeus dazed a young woman, Mnemosyne, and for nine consecutive nights he slept with her. Mnemosyne was the Titan goddess of memory and remembrance. She was also the inventor of words and language.
The result of these nine nights of passion? The nine muses.
As the daughter of Duranus, God of the Heavens and Time, Mnemosyne was the perfect biological mother for these nine little baby girls. As the mother of the muses, Mnemosyne was the original patron goddess of poets and oral traditions. Overseeing the skill of memorisation, her role was to preserve the oral histories and sagas of myths. Mnemosyne gives up her babies to the nymph Eufime and the god Apollo. She chose their adoptive parents well. Apollo controlled music, poetry, and eloquence. He was also the God of light and the sun. Apollo brought his nine new babies to Mount Helicon and raised them. The muses were tutored by Apollo himself. As each of the muses grew up, they showed strong promise and a penchant for the arts. They loved the Arts. They were never interested in anything else.
Mount Helicon had once been Zeus's old temple. Elikonos in Greek. Mount Helicon is a sacred site where the springs Aganpipe and Hippocrene are found. The area is known as the Valley of the Muses. This fertile mountain is celebrated in Ancient Greek mythology. The Hippocrene spring was formed when Pegasus, a mythical white-winged horse, struck open a rock with his hoof. It is also the spring where Narcissus admired his beauty.
Ancient Greece was largely an illiterate society. Memory was essential to orally share the stories and poems.
Apollo and the Muses ( Maarten De Vos) @Dreamstime.com
Inspiration of the Muses
Since ancient times, the muses have inspired artists. The muses were first mentioned in Hesoid’s epic poem The Theogony. A hymn to the muses, the poem was composed around 100 BC. In the opening lines, Hesoid tributes his poem to the nine muses who came to him during his sleep.
The Muses once taught Hesoid to sing
Sweet songs, while he was shepherding his lambs
On holy Helicon; the goddesses
Olympian, daughters of Zeus who holds
The aegis, first addressed these words to me:
During the 7th century BC, Homer also makes references to the muses. In the Iliad he begins with, “Let us begin, goddess of song.’ He calls to muses again in the Odyssey. This epic myth begins with “Sing in me Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Matias Del Carmine @ Dreamstime.com
A wonderful discovery 19th century Empress of Austria’s love of the nine muses. Empress Elisabeth II, or Sisi as she was affectionally called, built The Achilleion Palace. In 1890, she built the palace in the village of Gastori on the island of Corfu. She commissioned the building after the death of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. At 30, he died in a joint murder suicide with his 17-year-old mistress Baroness Mary von Vetsera. It would become her sanctuary away from the world and attention.
Sisi commissioned nine statues of the muses for her garden. The statues still stand today.
9 Muses Palace of Frizzantine @Dreamstime.com
The nine muses are alluring and graceful. They are gifted with specific artistic talent. They were also considered as romantic acquaintances for Apollo’s entourage of gods.
There is some commentary that the muses were born in Pieria at the foot of Mount Olympus. They were known as Pierian Muses. However, many classic and contemporary scholars believed the muses' birthplace was on Mount Helicon in Boetia. In fact, Hesoid refers to the muses in his first verse in The Theogony.
Initially there were three muses—Aoede the muse of song, Melete the muse of occasion and Mneme the muse of memory. These three were the original Boetian muses. However, In Delphi, their three muses were named after the three chords of a lyre—Nete, Mese and Hypate.
From Ancient Roman times, through the Renaissance and Romanticism era, artists have played homage to the nine muses. They sought the muses’ specialised talents and distinct elements according to their artistic pursuits. Finding inspiration from their unique talents and wisdom.
Throughout the centuries, in songs, dances and poems, the muses have enchanted the gods and humans. Yet, what the muses offered wasn't always filled with delights and inspiration. The muses were never to be defied. If anyone challenged the muses and lost, they would be castigated.
King Pierus of Macedon named his nine daughters after the nine muses. He believed they were more beautiful and talented. His daughters were turned into Magpies.
Let's meet the nine muses
The muse of epic poetry and eloquence. Calliope was the oldest and superior muse. She was linked to kings and queens to impose serenity and justice. Calliope was sometimes associated with the sciences. In art, she is shown wearing a laurel wreath. She may hold a scroll or a pen. Mythology states that Homer asked Calliope to inspire him as he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The muse of history, creativity, and memory. She embraced all times and places. The Greek word “kleos” means heroic acts. Clio founded the guitar. She can also attend to the political relations between nations and men. She was often depicted wearing a laurel wreath. In some paintings, she holds a trumpet in her right hand and a book in her left hand. At times, holding a parchment and a pen.
The muse of lyric or erotic poetry. Her name came from the Greek word “Eros” which means "the feeling of being" or "falling in love". She also presided over weddings. Artists who allowed to be guided by her desired to be loved and wanted. She can be shown with a lyre, hymns and sometimes adorned with roses and myrtle. Sometimes Erato was accompanied by the god Eros.
The muse of music. Her name means the “giver of pleasure” and known as the “pleasant one”. She found many instruments and dialects. She is shown with a crown of flowers and a flute. Euterpe is the mother of a warrior named Reso. In Homer’s Iliad, Reso died in Troy, killed by the hero Diomedes.
The muse and protector of tragedy. Melpomene had a melodious voice. Rhetoric speech was also one of her domains. Melpomene was also the mother of mermaids. She wears a cypress crown and carries the tragedy mask and a knife in her hands. Legend says she had everything one would wish and desire—beauty, money, and men, yet she was still unhappy. This itself was the tragedy—to have everything and but never truly be intrinsically satisfied.
The muse of astronomy and astrology. Her name means heavenly. She was also considered the muse of mathematics and sciences. Ourania was the youngest muse. She is shown wearing blue with a globe and a compass in her hands. Stars may adorn her dress, or she may wear a crown of stars. The Greek god Uranus and the planet Uranus are named after her.
The muse of sacred poetry or hymns. She is also the muse of meditation, geometry, and agriculture. She has been depicted as being thoughtful, wearing a veil and tunic. Polyhymnia may carry or be surrounded by musical or agricultural instruments.
The muse of dance. Her name means “delights in dance”. She is shown with a lyre. Terpsichore is also known as the mother of sirens who seduced sailors to their deaths in Homer’s Odyssey.
The muse and protector of comedy. Thalia means “flourishing”. She was festive and is shown holding a comedic mask and wearing a crown of ivy.
Johann Heinnrich Tischbein The Nine Muses (1771 - 1782)
Top (left to right): Calliope, Clio, Erato
Middle (left to right): Euterpe, Melpomene, Ourania
Bottom (left to right): Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia
The muses hold a special place for me. Even more so as a writer, lover of music and art in all forms—theatre, painting, and poetry. Believing in the muses gives my own sense of Xanadu. I imagine these ethereal and beautiful women travelling around the world inspiring poets, musicians, dancers, painters, sculptures, and writers. I hope they are with me, inspiring my imagination as I create. In doing so, I don’t feel so alone when I do.
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